And what are we up to today?
In early June, Google displayed archived documents from the 1944 D-Day attack on the Normandy Coast. Among these pictures, letters, and papers was a similar document to this one, handwritten by Eisenhower, detailing his apology, explanation, and acceptance of blame in the event the Allied attack failed. My love for history and my understanding of how different things might well be aside, both that apology and this statement concerning Apollo 11 give me pause on the writerly front.
I have a dear friend who states that when she comes to a crucial scene in a manuscript, she discards not just the first option she pens, or the second, but sometimes the third as well and ultimately goes with the fourth. Keep in mind, writing is not a snap of the fingers for her; I have long been a lucky first reader of her work, and I can tell you she agonizes over the majority of her scenes, and she attacks description and characterization with the long considered zeal of a perfectionist. Ergo, this abandonment of carefully crafted prose two, sometimes three times, is not a short or simple process.
It’s also a marvelous, and difficult, writing skill.
By discarding what comes first and most naturally, she forces herself to think past three very important things:
1) The Obvious. The clichéd, the stereotypical, the been-there-done-that. Maybe it feels right to you because it’s right, but maybe it’s just because you’ve seen it somewhere before. You’ve watched another scene turn along these lines, you’ve heard other voices speak these words. Natural progression is good, but beware of the commonplace.
2) The First Option. By working past what pops into mind first, you explore other ways that a scene could result. You begin pushing against the walls of the box, sticking your fingers through the air holes, doubling your list of “what ifs.” If a scene refuses to go anywhere, perhaps the best bet to find that hinge moment and swing things another way.
3) The 2-D Character. Maybe this is what a character would do first, but is it what a character would do best? Taking a look at what else might happen, not from the authorial point of view but rather from the character’s point of view, can give you and your readers a ton of insight into this character that otherwise may never have surfaced. The character might still emerge victorious and alive from that moon landing, but the fact that he or she prepared for what might happen on the other end of the spectrum can be extremely instructive.
Photo borrowed from this tweet.
Random Writing Exercise: Take a particular scene (bonus points if it’s one you are stuck on!) and write in the exact opposite direction from the one you’d planned. See where it goes. It may take you nowhere. It may give you insight into your characters or plot that you were missing. It may throw open the next door and reveal to you exactly how to rampage over the writer’s block into the meat of your story.
Due to recent experience, I have decided there is nothing more insipid than a voice automated telephone answering service.
"You have chosen to speak to a live person. This is incorrect. Surely I can help you. Please say clearly the name of the person you are trying to reach. Did you say Dwight Eisenhower? You didn't say Dwight Eisenhower? You must be incorrect. Please say clearly what you would like to do. You have selected 'playing pinochle with a hamster'. Is this correct? You have chosen to speak to a live person. Invalid entry. Are you sure you do not wish to play pinochle with a hamster?"
Random Writing Exercise: Write the phone call that drove you insane. Write the character that got back at the smarmy telescam artist. Write the answer you wish you could have given.
Recently I headed back to Minnesota to visit my dad's family in the immediate wake of my grandmother's death. It was, as these things are, a last minute purchase of plane tickets and an abrupt change in plans, and we arrived to pristine but extremely cold weather: the lakes in the Twin Cities area and much of the St. Croix River had frozen over and were covered in snow, like glistering meadows of white sand. Fishing huts with Christmas lights and cars parked out on the lakes will tell you just how thick that ice was and how firmly below freezing the temperature remained.
It was not only a trip back to the reality of dressing in layers daily and taking that five minutes to peel all one's outerwear off when sitting down in a restaurant for lunch. It was also getting to see my dad and all his siblings under the same roof with their father for the first time in a while. We're a bit spread out: Texas, Oregon, California, Minnesota, and sometimes Florida. (Much like my mother's side, which ranges through Michigan, Ohio, California, and the south.) It's a ways to travel and though we do see each other, it isn't terribly often.
It's the reality I grew up with. I have friends with extended family a block away from their childhood homes, and it's always been a blink-worthy moment for me, imagining being able to ride my bike around the corner or over to the next neighborhood to see my cousins. And while this particular meeting was for a sad reason, it was very good to see my uncles and aunts, my step-uncles and step-aunts, great uncle and aunt, cousin and step-cousins, and a whole side of my grandmother's extended family that I'd never met before. (My grandmother is technically my step-grandmother, but as a child, there was no distinction for me.) It was especially good to see my grandfather, who is spry and anxious to get back to tennis again after a car accident a little while back.
One night, we sat in my aunt and uncle's kitchen and were regaled for over an hour by the story of how they got together, a story I'd never heard. My cousin was clearly a veteran of this story, but save for my grandfather who had gone to bed, we were all in one room—at the kitchen table, the island, the computer desk, the cushioned chairs by the window—and we were listening to a history of the people in my family. It’s a history that never directly affected me, but it shaped them, and my two cousins, my father and his siblings. It dealt with how their careers brought them in contact, and it was entwined with stories I already knew, about my dad’s mother (who passed away years ago), and my dad’s grandparents, uncles and aunts. It made me think about how my own parents got together, and how everyone with these different lives had been drawn back home to be together again.
One family line, all in one room. It’s a little amazing, if you sit back and think about it, as I did.
The morning of the day we left, my father and I got in the car and drove over to the neighborhoods where he’d grown up. There were multiple houses to see. My dad took me down the paper route he’d had with his brother, past the homes of kids they’d played with, the schools they’d all attended. He told me about how people viewed the second neighborhood in general, the stereotypes they had for the individuals who hailed from there. He showed me dead ends that were no longer dead ends, schools that had come and gone, and reminisced about being kids out at recess, all dressed in ski pants and sliding down icy slopes without sleds. We pondered the existence of new streets, new schools, new houses. I pondered what it would be like taking my future children to the neighborhoods where I grew up.
There’s such a backstory here, a thousand details little and big, faces remembered and lives lived heartily. Older people who were young and young people who will one day be old with their own stories. Hell, we’ve already got stories, some that many don’t hear about due to mere circumstance. It’s a rich, undiscovered world well worthy of exploration.
Not So Random Writing Exercise: Explore a character’s family tree. Who are the people who came before? The people that came along at the same time? The people they married or didn’t marry, and the people who interacted with them? If there aren’t any people, why? Did they never exist or have they already gone? Sit them all around a kitchen table and tell them the stories of their lives.
Tis November, NaNoWriMo month! (That's National Novel Writing Month, wherein writers are challenged to write 50,000 words in 30 days.) In fact, it is the end of November, when most people are either scrambling diligently to reach their quota or sitting back and enjoying that gorgeous word count table and the beautiful "WINNER!" bars next to their names.
This would have been my third year in a row participating.
I cannot stress enough what a great idea NaNo is, because above all else, it gets people writing. It certainly did for me. It loosens up those cords binding the words in, shutting down voices. You know, those barriers that say things like, "That'll never work, it doesn't make sense, don't even bother starting." NaNo brings people together in support and friendly competition. And it results in a WHOLE LOT OF FIRST DRAFTS.
The first year I did it, it was a revelation. What came out of it was 50K of culture, scenery and characters set in the realm of death omens, namely the Black Dog and the souls designated to fill the role of harbinger for the rest of the world. I haven't done too much with it since, but I am so proud of it, and it's a universe I am chomping at the bit to explore in more detail.
The second year, while more prolific (I wrote 60K with time to spare), was also disturbingly sobering. I wrote a coming of age tale about a gay boy and the best friend he's secretly in love with, driving from California to Yellowstone National Park the summer before college. The story, drawn heavily from my own trip to Yellowstone that summer, was in and of itself not the problem. It came out (no pun intended) very readily, and I liked my characters and where they went, in the real world as well as metaphorically.
The reason I decided not to do NaNo a third time in a row came out of this second try, however: As freeing as it is to just write and write and write, no self-editing, no redrafting, just hit that 50,000 mark and then you are allowed to look at it a second time... Such a method ended up being detrimental to my particular writing style. I found myself tossing down as many words as I could in order to reach my daily quota. Never mind if those words actually had a real place or purpose in the story. Never mind if they were just restatements of the adjectives that came before. The stressful part turned out not to be meeting the word count so much as coming back later and realizing that, had I been allowed to write in my normal manner, I would not be back chopping out a third of what I'd spent a month putting down.
I know we are taught not to self-edit as we write, but frankly, it works for me. Only rarely does it stopper my writing. It does not slow my process but rather enhances it: I go back and reread what I've already written in order to glean more knowledge about the places I have yet to go, the scenes I am gearing up to write. In this sense, it helps that I do not tend to write a story's scenes in order. I will write the beginning, then something two-thirds of the way through, then the end, then right after the beginning, then the middle, then... You get the idea. If it comes into my head, I get it down before I forget it, regardless of where it is slated to end up in the story's timeline. Ultimately this method assists me in keeping themes arcing strongly and teaches me more about my characters and the world they live in. One would think this method would lend itself well to NaNo; when there is no rule concerning writing in order, a person can just go crazy. Fly. Erupt with a tide of storytelling.
Not true. For me, it turned into another way to not actually write. And by that I mean "write substance".
This year, I bowed out. Next year I may come back to NaNo, because goodness knows it's a wonderful way to flood the brain with ideas. Get things moving. This November, though, I needed time to work as I work best: producing something ultimately less wordy but that I can nod at and call quality.
How are you all finding NaNo? Does it work for you?
Random Writing Exercise: Try another method of writing. If you always write consecutive scenes, try writing the ending of your story first. If you tend to write all over the place (like me), trying writing a story in order, start to finish. If you edit as you go, try just writing straight up (no editing until you're done) and vice versa. Challenge yourself, just for this one story. How does this switch inform your style of choice? How does it cramp said style? (I know a lot of writers with a lot of different writing styles. We can always stand to learn from the styles of others, whether they work for us or not.)
...tis a rather blustery day! Driving has been a bit on the hazardous side due to Random Branches in the Middle of the Road. The power went out this evening and they weren't expecting to get it back online till 9:30 PM, but it suddenly popped back up around 7:30 so I don't know. Either way, yay, as my laptop battery isn't all it could be.
Writing has been almost nonexistent this week, mostly because I started a new job. Having been unemployed for the last year and scraping my bill payments together by house- and pet-sitting pretty much non-stop, I am extremely glad of steady income. But the schedule is kicking my BUTT. I need to get used to waking up a whole lot earlier, and more importantly, I need to get my writing brain in gear on much shorter notice. Luckily this is a job that works an entirely different section of my brain; I had a job a while back that basically sent me home after work to sit on the couch and stare dully at the wall. Good for money, not good at all for creating anything.
But it's good to be employed again. ^__^
Random Writing Exercise: Write a scene from your antagonist's POV. Doesn't have to go into your story or even get mentioned anywhere. This is just to get to know the other side of the story, as it were. Motivations? Lack of motivation? Give your antagonist a well-rounded moment, because it can only help your protagonist's development.
There’s a site I just love right now: HitRecord (see my links list over on the right side there). I’m fairly new to it, and while looking through past collaborations, I came across a collab called Tragedy/Comedy. The idea is to take a difficult experience in your life and convey it in a comedic manner, because even in the darkest times, there are always standout moments where you can just laugh and laugh. An intriguing premise, with a lot of potential for contributions (obviously, as there are many!). Immediately it caught my eye, both for the emotional impact inherent and the hopeful approach of dealing with hardship in such a way. I thought, okay. This is something I can do.
And then I started thinking about the bad things that have happened to me.
I am a writer. It’s what I do, what I’ve always done, the one straight thread that has run all the way through the twists and turns of the rest, intersecting with every other thing I’ve wanted to do: jobs, activities, people I wanted to meet, places I wanted to go, things I was rabid to learn.
(To give you a taste, as a child, I would say things like “I want to be a cowgirl… and a writer” or “I want to be a tightrope walker… and a writer.” Nowadays, it’s “I’m a writer… and an administrative assistant” or “I’d really like to go to school in England and write some characters north of Hadrian's Wall.")
I am incredibly grateful for the fact that in the overall scheme of things, I haven’t had a whole lot of horrible things happen in my life. But everybody, including me, has something, and maybe it’s an event another person wouldn’t consider all that bad, but to that one individual, it might be the worst thing he or she has experienced.
And that deposits a lot of baggage.
I have discovered it can be very hard to think about a bad experience in comedic form. I thought I would have more than a few things to pick through, and some that would spring to mind immediately as funny, given the time that has passed since they occurred. The truth is that, in trying to turn a bad experience into an amusing anecdote, you find out you might not be as over that event as you thought you were. My mind’s first reaction was to shy away from the bad memories, put them back into their labeled drawers where I have been safely keeping them. In a weird fit of hypocrisy, my mind also kept circling back to those ugly items from those once-locked drawers, unable to tangent away toward other possibilities. It took more effort than I expected to keep from continuing that unending cycle, from tucking things away again, instead making myself take them out and examine why they refused to be funny. And the things that did crop up as immediately amusing no longer feel serious enough for what I want to convey.
Maybe being able to turn a tragedy into a comedy is a crucial step toward actually getting past the event in question. The adage “Someday we’ll look back on this and laugh” is more than just a cliché or a phrase meant to provide (albeit lackluster) comfort at the time; it might be the one stepping stone people actively push back under the surface of turbulent waters. I’m starting to wonder if turning a tragedy into a comedy is something everyone should practice, as far as that’s within their ability to do. I realize that some things just are not funny.
I now have a story to contribute to this collab, but it’s taken the better part of two pondery weeks just to find an event I feel I can write about, while still doing the original situation justice. I want to thank the collab’s creator for presenting the idea, for giving me so much food for thought, and so much to examine. The HitRecord website is all about looking at things from another angle, and this collab has certainly prompted that in me.
Not-so-random writing exercise: Obviously, your task is to take a downer moment in your life and convey it in comedic form. This may end up being a more thinky exercise than a writey one. Whatever works. I think the real exploration here centers in what you find yourself <i>doing</i> with the story in order to spin a funny tone. How much of it changes? How much doesn’t? Are you okay with those alterations? Does it change your memory of the event?
Currently writing while listening to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford OST, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Moody and evocative, and highly adaptable to whatever I'm working on at a specific time. I've used this particular soundtrack as writing background for several things, and I'm wondering: what is it YOU all listen to when you write? Do you listen while you write, or maybe just before? Just after? What tune is in your head for a specific type of scene? Are certain songs interchangeable for other projects or do they only fit once? Are you the type of writer you prefers silence while you create?
Random writing exercise: Pick one phrase you heard someone say while out and about this past week and write an entire conversation based off of it. Just the one phrase, taken out of context of whatever was going on when you heard it.
Getting so many of my ideas while walking to and from the gym lately has made me very aware of how often I draw on what I see around me in my writing. The beauty of (currently) dealing with characters in our present day setting is all the direct inspiration that arrives free of charge.
Little things: a man waiting for a tow truck on the side of the road; a teenager juggling projects, driving tests, and prom plans all in one weekend; a line stretching around the block in front of a movie theater on opening weekend. Big things: the fight for gay rights; the imbalance between the 1% and the 99%; the news that leaps off the front page or the computer screen, sometimes in real time. There is so much to draw on, and it doesn't have to be a big climactic moment at all. A teacher once told me there is drama in brushing your teeth, if you approach it in the right way. Learning to open our eyes and ears (and noses and all the rest) to the small stuff is all part of world building. I want my characters to walk through a concrete universe full of the results of others' actions, surrounded by the people who make that world what it is, reacting to their world as if they are physically breathing it in and out of their bodies. The question of detail may mean the difference between a story that tugs fitfully at your trouser leg and a story that grips you by both shoulders and stares you point blank in the eye.
Another little beauty is that detail work can make character building easy, because the world is an active participant in who that person is or isn't, who he or she becomes. Noticing what my characters notice has been very instructive.
Random writing exercise: Take a character you've written or are thinking about... and change the gender, just for a day. Rewrite scenes, write new scenes, introduce this character to their other-gender self over coffee. Make your character genderless, if you want. Discover how much this changes your perception of your character. Get to know your character better.
Hello! My name is Grete and welcome to my writing blog! I am a writer or romance, horror, and general observation